CEDAR RAPIDS — The Classics at Brucemore is going out on a limb with characters at the end of their rope.
The theatrical troupe, which gathers each summer to showcase a major literary work in its natural environment, is bringing Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” to the outdoor stage Thursday to July 21.
It’s set in a rundown Mexican hotel in the 1940s and examines one day in the life of the desperate people whose paths cross there: the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Jim Kropa of Cedar Rapids), a tour guide and disgraced minister with an eye for underage girls; Maxine Faulk (Marty Norton of Robins), the recently widowed, middle-aged hotel manager who throws herself at Shannon; and Hannah Jelkes (Katy Slaven of Norway), an itinerant artist barely eking out a living traveling with her poet grandfather, Nonno (Len Struttmann of Hiawatha).
Weaving in and out of the action are various tourists, including a 16-year-old girl Shannon is accused of bedding, and the Mexican “boys” who work for Maxine.
Director Jason Alberty, 43, of Cedar Rapids, realizes the title might not spark the same recognition as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or other classics produced at Brucemore since 1996. He hopes that won’t deter people from packing their picnics and heading to the show.
“It is one of our greatest American playwrights’ best works,” he says. He knew he had to bring it to Brucemore after he and his friends saw it performed outdoors in Spring Green, Wis., in 2007.
“It was gorgeous,” he says, “and we thought, we have got to do this show. We’ve got the actors, we’ve got the space and the setting.”
- The Classics at Brucemore presents “The Night of the Iguana”
- at 8 p.m. Thursday to July 14 and July 19 to 21; gates open at 7 p.m.
- Tickets: $18 adults, $15 Brucemore members and students in advance at the Brucemore store or (319) 362-7375; $20 at the gate
- Parking is available on the grounds; bring seating, picnics, beverages
As with all Classics productions, the natural amphitheater near Brucemore’s duck pond becomes another player for actors entering and exiting through the massive trees and for the audience members who spread out picnics, blankets and chairs to dine an hour before the show. They’ll be serenaded this year by a trio from Mariachi de Colores, an Iowa-based band founded in 2010, to set the mood.
“Come at 7 with a basket of food and a couple of drinks and listen to the some great music,” Alberty says. “The venue is the thing. It’s just a beautiful place to spend of couple of hours.”
The Classics participants love the summer gig so much they call it “Camp Brucemore.”
“Being out here on these beautiful grounds and playing with your friends is something we all look forward to,” says actress Norton, 60, who is embarking on her 11th Classics production.
The estate grounds provide a “perfect” environment for this show, she says, because it takes place in the jungle of Mexico.
“The night sounds we get every year — the frogs and the owls — this is a perfect show for this” setting, she says.
Kropa, 39, has been part of the group for 14 years and echoes that sentiment.
“I do enjoy the outdoors, and I like performing outdoors,” he says. “What keeps me coming back is the feeling of sharing the experience with the audience is a lot greater when you are really in the same space in the same light.”
Like the tropics of Eastern Iowa on a mid-July night, “Iguana” is set on a hot summer night on Mexico’s western coast, “in a place where the jungle meets the sea,” Kropa says.
“The whole action of the play is outdoors and it’s really close to the experience that the audience is going to have,” he says. “Your drinks should be tropical themed, mojitos, things with rum — rum and coconut water is what the characters are drinking through the play.”
Alberty says audiences will see “some of the best acting in the area.”
“I know I’m biased, but this is an actor’s show,” he says. “There is so much going on emotionally, tactically, objective-wise with the characters that it really allows the actors to shine. There are some very, very strong actors in this show. We’re only two weeks into the rehearsal — it’s been a great experience for me as a director, already.”
Kropa is especially thrilled to get to bring Shannon to life.
“I’ve wanted to do this play and do this role here for a long, long time,” he says.
Shannon is a meaty role for any actor. Kropa calls him a sort of “anti-hero,” with a shady past that’s dogging his present. After spending one year as a minister 10 years ago, Shannon was ousted from his church in Virginia for fornication and heresy. He became a tour guide and gravitated toward the tropics, offering “tours of God’s world by a minister of God.” Now he’s in trouble, and has come to the Costa Verde Hotel, owned by his friends, “to try and escape and recuperate,” Kropa says.
For all his faults, Shannon is still an empathetic character, Kropa says.
“He is a bit despicable, because he’s seducing these women. He’s mean to people. But when he encounters the grandfather and the granddaughter that are here, then you see some of his tenderness and what he wants for a better world,” Kropa says.
Norton is stepping outside of her usual comedic zone to tackle a tough character in Maxine, the hotel owner and Shannon’s longtime friend.
“If she has to hit somebody, she does,” Norton says. “I’ve never played anybody like her — ever. She’s hard, lusty, her demeanor changes instantaneously. Nothing’s planned. Whatever way the wind’s blowing, she reacts. If things are going well she’s happy, but mostly, things are not going well for her.”
Drawing these damaged characters is a hallmark of playwright Williams, a Pulitzer Prize winner and 1938 University of Iowa graduate.
“He’s got this great, universal pathos in his characters,” Alberty says. “They’re just so lost that I think people just want to hold them and make them feel better, even though most of them are victims of their own acts. That’s just from a character standpoint.”
He hopes audiences are “touched by … the sense that the characters know they are at some level doomed, but they continue because that’s the brave thing to do. That’s the beautiful thing to do, to continue,” he says.
“It’s a Greek drama in that fashion — that life seems insurmountable, because honestly it is. We all have one thing that we are going to do, and that is die. The way we that allow that to happen is really what sets us apart,” he says. “That’s sort of Williams’ thing — that people are battered and bruised and we are all damaged. And it’s the way we handle that damage that makes our lives beautiful — or makes our lives ugly.
- Diana Nollen